Despite the overarching comic tone (albeit with sharp caustic and aggrieved inflections), this study of a troubled young woman’s journey cross country (nursing an enormous vacuum in her soul) to inveigle her way into the perceived glamourous life of an Instagram socialite is possibly the most despairing film on this year-end list. The innate likability of star Aubrey Plaza keeps a viewer invested in a character who spirals into some truly alienating, diabolical behaviour, a miasma of abhorrent selfishness, inconsideration and physical violence (directed at both self and others). It posits a world which feeds on personal insecurity and shame, a currency of images against which an individual defines value and worth. The strength of the film is in indicating its internet sensation herself may be nothing more than a beguiling composite of other people’s ideas and suggestions, a carefully crafted cribbing to project an interesting facade (at heart inauthentic). Online social culture, with its immediacy and disingenuousness, and an increasing generational inability to reflect adroitly, can exacerbate anxieties and paranoia in already compromised people. The film’s scariest moment arrives when Ingrid’s most personally destructive action results in the most desired state-rather than an instant of sudden clarity or epiphany at just how far her life has spun out of control, instead you witness Ingrid’s stunning lack of care or interest in self-harm, only that she has inadvertently achieved a goal that she foolishly believes will make her whole and valid. And that is all. You laugh, but choke in appalled disbelief.
The images pristine and antiseptic, the atmosphere austere, the tone acerbic and acidic, there is something unnervingly unearthly beating beneath the surface of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, which unspools in the fashion of a parable (informed by Euripides’s Iphigenia). Lanthimos shares with other acclaimed European contemporary directors (most prominently Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl) a pitiless, unvarnished gaze, an egregiously honed flair for showcasing humans enmeshed in exquisitely awkward agonies of (mostly) their own making, and presenting a universe designed to ultimately extinguish and crush all follies of humankind, displaying a merciless fetish for the cruel turn of fate. All of this, with a misanthropic wit (perhaps less so of Seidl as he has progressed through his career). Lanthimos suggests that the bourgeoisie family at the heart of this tale must be punished for perceived arrogances of privilege, a gauzed existence-we see supremely self-possessed cardiac surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) strangely solicitous to a teenage boy, offering gifts and visits, their dialogue freighted with tension and uneasiness, extortionate undercurrents. Barry Keoghan plays the boy, who we come to understand is the son of a man who died under Steven’s care, possibly while he was drunk, as slightly ethereal-and dangerous. He is an implacable force, a rancid agent of retribution, come to collect. Sometime at the mid-point, any sense of realism is relinquished, and the film hurtles off into the mythic realm, and firmly remains there. Family members succumb to paralysis without any physical cause, and Steven and his wife (Nicole Kidman) must face an annihilating decision. Even as he shades off into symbol, Keoghan rivets with a seething charisma, a malevolence borne of unforgiveness and profound anger. It’s not an easy watch, and some of the later scenes may try the limits of an individual’s taste (the level of intensity could be considered repugnant ), but Lanthimos certainly, and gleefully, goes to extreme places, throwing restraint aside, and I appreciate the gesture, ostentatious as it may be, although some may dismiss it as facile satire.
More than just a distaff version of Eminem’s 8 Mile, Geremy Jasper’s debut film chronicling the first steps of an aspiring rapper, defying convention in a multitude of ways-female, white, ample in size-is rich in attitude and energy, energising an otherwise traditionally structured narrative. Jasper brings a sure feel for lower-middle class New Jersey environments and locations (car parks, convenience shops, dingy clubs, cluttered homes) and a verve for the cultural and ethnic melange of the population of the town. Australian actress Danielle MacDonald is a force of nature in the title role, indefatigable, determined, self-possessed, as she navigates around several spheres of discrimination and defeat (especially detailed and complicated is the fraught relationship with her mother, love and resentment hopelessly entangled). Patti’s mother, once in pursuit of a musical career herself, abandoned her dream when she became pregnant with her daughter, so there’s an understandable ambivalence in her response to Patti’s ambitions. As embodied by comedienne-singer Bridget Everett, she’s a formidable presence, hard-bitten and worn. Not all of the characters quite work (a virulently antiestablishment metal-punk associate who lives, improbably, in a park shed which resembles a set piece out of the Saw films), and there are more than enough montage sequences (the Rocky effect), but an admirable coarse candour and dynamically written characters help enormously to distinguish the material beyond the familiar elements. The conclusion isn’t so much that Patti will triumph and go on to a famous career, in the feel-good way of all underdog stories, but that she reaches a moment that proves something profound to herself, that she can see an objective through to achievement, even if manifested on a small stage in a local club.
Mysterious, ambiguous, haunting-all these words apply to Olivier Assayas’s piercing exploration of the psychic drift of the title character (played superbly, fearlessly by Kristen Stuart, who remains an effortlessly charismatic and idiosyncratic physical presence on screen, with a profoundly still and concentrated emotional register), unmoored by the recent death of her sibling. Travelling to and from exotic locations in pursuit of accessories and wardrobes for her celebrity fashionista client allows for much time to contemplate and reflect, each journey itself a limbo of alienated time and space, a realm in which to lose a sense of self and direction. Assayas uses the disembodied nature of modern communication devices brilliantly, exploiting them for their uses as foci for aggression and anxiety (the sequence in which Stewart receives a series of stacked threatening texts from an unknown source, the unfurling lines filling the screen with the force of a fist, is truly terrifying, a moment worthy of Hitchcock). Maintained throughout the film is the exquisite feeling of suspension, Stewart held in a state between dream and reality-perhaps able to commune with spirits as a medium, she has a series of encounters with phenomenon (one spectre, intentions uncertain, draws close to her in her brother’s house, a wondrous and dreadful CGI image that crackles with frisson). Near the end, there is a masterful scene which rewards vigilance: Stewart, foregrounded, with an astonishing movement in the background, nearly imperceptible, but awe-striking in its quiet menace. With its final moment, Stewart, now as afield as she has ever been, speaks into the void, and perhaps hears herself answer-she may be the ghost haunting herself.
On the evidence of this outrageously nervy and bold effort, Alice Lowe may have been the stealth agent in Ben Wheatley’s best film to date, Sightseers (she co-wrote the screenplay), keeping the proceedings in focus and preempting Wheatley’s more abstract tendencies, his waywardness with arcana. Lowe, who was pregnant when she wrote and shot this audacious stew of kitchen-sink horror and anarchic comedy, stars as an expectant mother whose baby, from the womb, begins to issue death notices to particularly loathsome and arrogant persons with whom the mother-to-be engages. Some critics have found fault with the broad caricatures of the victims, but the cartoonish dimensions are in keeping with the woozy, amphetamine drive of the narrative (perhaps the obnoxiousness of the people is a clear exaggeration of the lead’s heightened emotional state). Quite beyond the murders (many of which are predicated on the behaviour exhibited towards the character as a pregnant woman), the film is actually a poignant exploration of the uneasiness and alarm of the state of carrying a life inside of the body, the threats to sense of self as you are expected to surrender wholly to an unseen entity growing inside you. Lowe locates reserves of fear and exhaustion and power in her character, and bravely confronts the sanctimoniously predominant sentimental notions of the state of pregnancy as divine and dignified-rather, as seen here, it’s messy, traumatic and visceral. Lowe likens her state to “a hostile takeover”. It’s a bit scrappy and unrefined as cinema, but Lowe has a singular sensibility and wonderfully malicious wit, and her film is alive with delicious and grimy spite-perhaps a bit too gruesome for those with a more discreet taste, but very palatable for adventurous consumers.